Something about working late hours gets me philosophical, and I feel compelled to take that out on the rest of the web. (Or at least the few sturdy souls who read my blog, and all those search bots who are my loyal followers as well.)
Probably this is an epiphany only to me, but I think I finally get what the disconnect between Old School and New School gamers is with respect to their characters. I'm going to stick with D&D and Traveller as two examples of both Old School and New School games in their various editions. Plus, they're the games I'm most familiar with.
In an "Old School Game", your characters are very random. In both D&D and Traveller, players are admonished by the rules to "make do" with their characters, and only in truly hopeless cases do they get to roll up another before at least trying to play that character. (Traveller famously advises enrolling undesirable characters in the Scouts, because that is the service they're least likely to survive chargen in.)
In more "New School" games like D&D 3e and Mongoose Traveller, (and to a much greater extent games like GURPS or FateCore) you are encouraged to dream up a character concept and then "build" towards that concept through a combination of random and deterministic elements.
So where's the big revelation, you ask?
Well, it's this - in OSG, players are "dealt" characters, but in NSG, players create characters.
The difference has a profound effect on how players approach their games. "Dealt" characters are almost "pawns" or "hands" (as in poker) that give the player capabilities to use during the game, and some characteristics to aid in role playing (OSGs are still RPGs, after all). "Created" characters are drawn directly from the player's desires, and thus more closely represent the players' own alter-egoes.
In my case, I've generally viewed characters as being "dealt" - the challenge of dreaming up a way to play the stats and to employ the powers in a useful way is fun to me. Of course I also come to identify with my characters, since it's not really possible to play a role that does not contain your own personality to varying degrees. But a character's death isn't really any more disappointing to me than the death of a character in a TV show or book that I like.
Which I suppose puts me firmly in the OSG camp, though I think I enjoy the more elegant rule systems that the NSG camp generally has.
I can sympathize with those who view characters as a form of wish-fulfillment though, and given the preponderance of more NSG style games, it seems most people identify with their characters more than a little bit.